The first lot Hunter Valley Farm ever sold at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale turned out to be Scat Daddy – the dual Grade 1-winning son of Johannesburg who became a game-changing sire for Coolmore.
It might easily have been all downhill from there. But the operation has since also been responsible for high-class performers such as Qurbaan and Tom’s D’Etat while last November, they also sold Shedaresthedevil – then a two-year- old – for $280,000 to Flurry Racing Stables; turned over to trainer Brad Cox, she went on to lead home a one-two for the now Turkish-based stallion Daredevil in the Kentucky Oaks earlier this month.
All in all, it has been a rapid rise to the top of the consigning ranks for the Irish natives who founded Hunter Valley Farm in 2004 – old friends and Irish National Stud breeding course graduates Fergus Galvin and Adrian Regan and silent partners Tony Hegarty and John Wade, who run a construction business in Chicago.
“Scat Daddy set the bar very high,” says Galvin, looking back at the stud’s early years. “We’d bought him privately as a foal out of a field along with his dam Love Style. We were fans of Johannesburg and he was a big, stretchy colt with a great walk.
“The package wasn’t cheap, and we needed to get some partners on board, but we sold the pair for good money and Scat Daddy became a good two-year-old and even better three-year-old. What he achieved at stud was phenomenal and his early death was a massive loss for the industry as he was still only just getting going really – he could have been up there with the very best stallions.”
Scat Daddy sold to trainer Todd Pletcher for $250,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale of 2005 and Love Style was moved on for $350,000 two months later at the company’s November breeding stock Sale.
Scat Daddy won the Champagne Stakes at two and Florida Derby at three. He was among the leading fancies for the Kentucky Derby but finished a long way behind Street Sense, suffering a career- ending injury in the race.
Retired to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky at a fee of $30,000, he fell a little out of favour in his early years as a stallion and was quickly reduced to $10,000 by his fourth northern hemisphere season.
However, the handsome dark bay soon surged back into the breeding industry’s collective consciousness by supplying a steady stream of fast, physically forward runners with an affinity for Royal Ascot – think Caravaggio, Lady Aurelia, Sioux Nation and so on – and high-class runners at home such as Daddys Lil Darling and Lady Of Shamrock. He was also dubbed the Galileo of Chile when his southern hemisphere-bred horses dominated the country’s Classic races.
Scat Daddy soon became one of the most talked about stallions on the planet, with Coolmore hiking his fee to $100,000 for the 2016 covering season in Kentucky. But then disaster struck. In December 2015, while walking from his paddock at Ashford Stud, he dropped dead of suspected heart failure.
The enormity of the loss was magnified in 2018 when Justify, a colt from his final crop, became the 13th US Triple Crown winner. Proving that the sire could do later maturing talents as well as locked and loaded two-year-olds, his roll of elite winners has grown by two this year – through Combatant landing the Santa Anita Handicap and Con Te Partiro taking the Coolmore Classic and Legacy Stakes in Australia.
Hunter Valley Farm’s role in the tale was not confined to the sale of Scat Daddy himself; it also sold his son No Nay Never as a foal. The Norfolk Stakes and Prix Morny winner is now carrying the flame for his sire at stud, with his first three crops conceived at Coolmore in County Tipperary yielding a long list of stakes winners headed by Group 1 performers Arizona, Ten Sovereigns and Wichita.
“No Nay Never was a lovely foal, not overly big but strong and well balanced,” says Regan. “He had an excellent action and ticked all the boxes. I remember going to see him, and he just really caught the eye physically.
“He was from Scat Daddy’s third crop and the sire was a little quiet at that point – it’s around then when people tend to back off stallions generally. He was back in Book 3 at Keeneland November but he was so good-looking that he made $170,000 and was one of the highest priced weanlings of the session.”
“What Scat Daddy achieved at stud was phenomenal and his early death was a massive loss for the industry”
Hunter Valley Farm’s draft at this month’s Keeneland September Yearling Sale includes two sons of No Nay Never, both with Galileo looming large in their female families. One is out of the Coolmore phenomenon’s daughter Hot Legs, the other out of Flowers Will Bloom, a daughter of Fastnet Rock and Natural Bloom, a Galileo half-sister to Fairy Queen and Tashawak.
The stud has played a smaller part in another transatlantic success story of recent years. It enjoys a close relationship with Qatar Racing, so when that operation found Vertem Futurity and 2,000 Guineas hero Kameko at Keeneland for just $90,000, it was set the task of sourcing the Kitten’s Joy colt’s dam Sweeter Still despite her slide into obscurity in the US.
Sweeter Still, a Rock Of Gibraltar half-sister to Racing Post Trophy winner Kingsbarns who was the joint-second top lot at $750,000 at Keeneland January in 2014, had endured a slow start to her breeding career, producing little of note from matings with champion sires Giant’s Causeway and Galileo.
Consequently, it took Tim Lesley Thompson only $1,500 to buy the mare in foal to Calumet Farm’s first-season sire Optimizer when she went under the hammer long after the glamour sessions at Keeneland November in 2018.
Sweeter Still was tracked down by Hunter Valley Farm last summer and purchased privately on behalf of Qatar Racing along with her Optimizer filly, who is being consigned to Keeneland this month.
“It’s worked out for everyone,” says Galvin. “We were lucky to find her and she’s here now. The Optimizer filly is a May foal so the mare wasn’t covered last year but she’s safely back in foal to Kitten’s Joy now.”
Explaining the roots of the alliance with Qatar Racing, he adds: “We met David Redvers over here in our early years, when he was still doing his own thing and he used to stay with us.
“That was before he met Sheikh Fahad, but when he became manager of Qatar Racing he recommended any stock bought or based in Kentucky stayed with us, so we’ve been very fortunate. They’re very good clients and we have around half a dozen mares and weanlings for them here.”
Fruitful relationships with European clients have been key to Hunter Valley Farm’s success. It works with, in various capacities, breeze-up vendors Brendan Holland and Norman Williamson, and its Keeneland September consignment includes an American Pharoah half- brother to Tampa Bay Derby winner and Preakness Stakes hopeful King Guillermo on behalf of French-based Robert Nataf, who bought the colt as a foal.
It was another connection with agent Stephen Hillen that inspired Hunter Valley Farm to pinhook the Quality Road colt Dr Post as a foal for $200,000, as Galvin explains.
“He was an interesting purchase as his dam Mary Delaney was originally raced by Mark Wallace in Britain and then Stephen, who’s a good client, brought her over here,” he says. “We put her with Eddie Kenneally, she developed into a good filly on synthetics and we sold her on for good money. She hadn’t done much as a broodmare but it was probably that familiarity with her career that helped make us buy Dr Post as a weanling.”
“The Europeans in us insist there has to be good action and balance in the horse”
“We have a good network of clients, and knew many of them before starting Hunter Valley Farm,” says Regan. “Lots of the relationships developed from openings made by quarantine arrangements. We’re less than ten minutes from Keeneland, so the convenience factor has helped the business a lot.”
“We pinhook with a lot of different partnerships, made up of both European and American parties,” adds Galvin. “The key for us is looking for some hidden upside in the mares. We work the less expensive books very hard, and put in an awful lot of research into the pages at home before the sales. We’re looking for potential pedigree updates, maybe something we might have seen at a sale before, and hope something transpires.”
“The Europeans in us insist there has to be good action and balance in the horse,” Regan continues, on the theme of the farm’s approach to pinhooking. “But then from a US perspective we’re looking for horses with height and a good length of leg, with an athletic frame.”
So Hunter Valley Farm has the carefully selected stock, but in this year of worldwide pandemic will it have the market to sell into?
“We’ve done a lot of farm visits and shows and the reception has been good,” says Galvin. “They’re a nice bunch of horses, the best we’ve had, so we’re cautiously optimistic.
“The sales held since the coronavirus outbreak could have been a lot worse. There was a yearling sale in Texas recently and the clearance rate was very good considering they were selling into the middle market. It was an encouraging sign that there are still buyers out there.”
“We have to expect the market will be down due to travel difficulties,” adds Regan. “Books 1 and 2 will likely hold their value but the later books will likely become progressively tougher.”
Describing themselves as “positive people”, the Hunter Valley Farm team might be realistic about the state of yearling trade in Kentucky this year but they can already see some things that the current crisis might change for the better.
“It’s important to commend the sales companies for having been conscious of working closely with sellers to try to make the sales as successful as possible in the circumstances,” says Regan.
“And it looks as though video footage of sales lots might be here to stay. The sales companies have done a good job of updating their websites to host the media and it just helps agents get to see the stock on offer. Nothing will ever replace looking at horses in the flesh but this development certainly can’t hurt.”
“Lots of the relationships developed from openings made by quarantine arrangements”
Regan and Galvin may be relentlessly upbeat – and understandably so, considering their enviable record of success in just 15 years of operation – but they do have reservations over one relatively recent development in the bloodstock industry: the increased emphasis on vetting.
“If there’s one thing we’d be a little bit critical of in the US sales culture, we’re flabbergasted at how easily horses get marked down by vets,” says Galvin. “You see it a little in Europe now, but it’s more prevalent here.
“Tom’s D’Etat was a lovely yearling we sold for SF Bloodstock, and he had a little x-ray issue, as did another recent useful graduate of ours, Multiplier, and both were marked down. Vetting is too critical, as so many horses go on despite those supposed issues. Tom’s D’Etat and Multiplier prove that as they’re both doing well at the ages of seven and six.
“In our opinion, a potential buyer might be better served asking the consignor or person looking after the horse whether any vetting observations have impacted its soundness or are likely to in the future, or whether the problem is manageable. But instead, those horses are too quickly taken off buyers’ lists in the US.”
Regan interjects: “That said, the good agents know what they can live with from a veterinary perspective. Many will be able to buy a nice horse who is marked down by others a bit more cheaply, so it can be an angle for some.”
Considering the farm’s roll of honour, topped by Scat Daddy and tailed by Shedaresthedevil, those wise words ought to be heeded.